A Reflection on the Ruderman Inclusion Summit
by Aimee Halstuk, Ramah Darom Inclusion Support Counselor
Tenacious, strong-willed, empathetic and free-spirited are four words I use when describing myself. From skiing down a mountain, graduating from university and traveling abroad I have never let having a physical disability hinder me from enjoying life, or so it seemed!
The truth is, from the ages of 15 until about 27 I thought I was less worthy than everyone else. I viewed myself as somebody who was a burden to others. I saw myself as somebody that required too much effort to be friends with, have in the workforce, have as a student or give any sort of extra help because I have Cerebral Palsy.
Cerebral Palsy is a physical disability that affects muscle movement, control, and coordination. My parents have always fought for my inclusion in mainstream culture and society. My mother refused to let the fact that I used a walker prevent me from being treated like all the other children. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a community where people did not see me as a disability, they saw me as a human with the same desires as anyone else. I was included in everything from the classroom to birthday parties and beyond. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I started to realize my disability indeed affected how others saw me. I began noticing people staring at me when I walked down the street and, in some cases, teachers not knowing how to handle somebody who had a physical disability in their classroom. I began to realize the discrimination I would face simply because I moved differently. The truth is that the discrimination was probably always there but as a child, I just didn’t notice it.
“I was fortunate enough to grow up in a community where people did not see me as a disability, they saw me as a human with the same desires as anyone else.”
As my worldview changed so did my understanding of how I, and others with disabilities, fit into society. I realized that I would have to fight to receive all the rights that I deserved. For a long time, I refused to join the disability rights movement because I did not want my disability to define me. I thought joining this movement would brand me as somebody that was “less than”.
“Society needs to change their view of disability from something they need to fix and make better, to something they need to embrace and learn from.”
Then in 2009, I had what would be a life-changing opportunity. I began working at an overnight camp in Wisconsin for children with autism and other social disorders. It was there that I began to learn I was valued and so much more than just a disabled person. I had unique gifts to share with the world and with the appropriate support, and a lot of gumption, I would do just that. My supervisor at the time, Audra Kaplan, who is now my dear friend, instilled in me a sense of power that I am forever grateful for. When Audra began working for Ramah Darom as the Tikvah Support Program Director we reconnected and in the summer of 2017, I began working at Ramah Darom as an Inclusion Support counselor in the Tikvah Support program. National Ramah invited me to attend the Ruderman Inclusion Summit representing Ramah Darom.
My experience at the Ruderman Inclusion Summit was eye opening and the feeling of empowerment engulfed me. I had the opportunity to learn with wonderful altruistic people who had the same objective as I, to make the world a better place for individuals with disabilities. I learned how to create inclusive recreational activities for people with disabilities, advocate for their rights, and help them become fully included in society. During a workshop for people with disabilities at Jewish camp, we worked together to brainstorm and implement ways to give campers with disabilities the best camp experience possible while being fully a part of the mainstream camp community. I can’t wait to use the skills I learned to further enrich campers’ experiences at Ramah Darom!
“When we give people with disabilities the accommodations they need to succeed they will.”
The most significant experience for me at the summit was seeing Mandy Harvey speak and perform live. Mandy Harvey is a gifted singer and songwriter who happens to be deaf. When she was 19 she lost her hearing. When Mandy first lost her hearing, she gave up on her dream of becoming a musician and a music teacher. She states, “When my dream died I died… The world didn’t make any sense anymore. I found myself looking to hold onto the past… Going from the hearing world into a world of silence I have found so much beauty. I have found myself… Learning sign language allowed me to feel like I wasn’t the only stupid person in the room… I don’t have to feel like I don’t understand what’s happening. I could be just as part of everything if you give me the tools… I have learned that I’m capable of doing things that other people tell me are impossible… why are they impossible? They are impossible because people tell you they’re impossible…. It’s not impossible it’s just not seen so let’s show them” -Mandy Harvey, Ruderman Inclusion Summit 2017
Mandy’s assertion demonstrates the importance of inclusion for all people with disabilities. When we give people with disabilities the accommodations they need to succeed they will. Society needs to change their view of disability from something they need to fix and make better to something they need to embrace and learn from. With this change will come tremendous empowerment and success for individuals with disabilities. I am determined to ensure that slowly but surely no one will be marginalized, discriminated against or put down for their disabilities. I plan to continue educating society on the beauty of different abilities. By practicing inclusion, we are teaching that difference is to be embraced and cherished.
Learn more about Ramah Darom’s Tikvah Support Program.
About The Author
Aimee has a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Anthropology. She’s a woman of many passions. Aimee particularly enjoys working with children as well as individuals who have developmental disabilities. Aimee currently works as an Afterschool Program Coordinator with the JCC in Chicago. During the summer, Aimee works with the Tikvah Program at Ramah Darom as an Inclusion Consular and advocates for the full inclusion of campers with disabilities.